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Lions Roar : July 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2012 34 JAMES ISHMAEL FORD is guiding teacher of Boundless Way Zen and a Unitarian Universalist minister. He is the author of Zen Master Who? and coeditor of The Book of Mu. His new book, If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break: Field Notes From a Zen Life, will be published in September by Wisdom Publications. What is interesting is how meditation can be so impor- tant for us, whether we’re looking to enhance our well- being, hoping to get a bit of a better handle on our lives, or throwing our lot into the great exploration of this life’s meaning and purpose. Whatever the reason we take up meditation, what I’ve found is that when we stop and look, step away from our assumptions just for a moment, and take up the spiritual discipline of practice, things do happen. It can be shock- ing to discover how much is in our hands. William James observed, “Each of us literally chooses, by his way of attending to things, what sort of universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” Synergies begin when we bring our attention to the ways of the world, and the ways of our hearts. We discover new territory and new possibility. An old and dear friend summarized this, observing how the cultivation of a “peaceful mind can blossom into a pro- found mind.” Of course, there are many kinds of meditation, one or another for every purpose under the sun. Personally, I’m a bit of a minimalist. And so whatever your reason for con- sidering meditation, maybe someone interested in mini- mums might be helpful to you. Here’s what I have to offer: I find the practice of sitting down, shutting up, and paying attention is the most useful path to a more healthy life. It will help us find peace and sometimes open us up to ever deeper possibilities. Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. These are the points that allow the synergies to happen. As the modern Chi- nese master Sheng Yen said, “As the mind becomes clearer, it becomes more empty and calm, and as it becomes more empty and calm, it grows clearer.” This is the spiral path of clarity. The more deeply we engage it, the deeper we become. It is here we find that peaceful mind. With this we find the place is set where we can find a profound mind, opening ourselves to a path of wisdom in a world of confusion. Sit Down When I first began Buddhist meditation I met a woman who was a long- time student of Zen, and who was considered to have achieved deep insight. What is important to note here is that she was a quadriplegic; since her accident she’d never “sat” in any traditional way. Whenever I talk with people about sitting, I remember her. In fact the Buddha told us there are four postures suitable to meditation: standing, walking, lying down and sitting down. They all work. They all have a place. That said, for most of us it seems best to begin the practice by sit- ting down. Taking our place this way establishes our intention and allows us to focus on the basics of the practice. When someone says something like, “I don’t need to sit, my spiritual prac- tice is golf ” (or knitting, or archery, or target shooting), I think they might well be missing something. Now, I have nothing against golf, or any of these activities. While each of them brings gifts, true meditation—at least the meditation disciplines associated with Buddhism—bring us to something more important. And we start by tak- ing our place, by sitting down. Just sit. If you can hold your body upright it is better. You can sit on the floor on a pillow or on a chair. Whichever you chose, it helps to have your bottom a bit higher than your knees. This establishes a triangular base that supports your torso. Pushing the small of the back slightly forward and holding the shoulders slightly back helps create that upright position. Sitting this way, you can immediately feel your lungs opening up and each breath invigorating your body. Place your hands in your lap. In Zen, we like to sit with our eyes open. Many traditions prefer to close the eyes. Experiment a little. Find what seems to work best for you. Personally, I like to see where I’m going. Shut Up Maybe you’ve heard the story of the professor who visited the Zen mas- ter. The professor talks and talks and talks, until his throat is dry. Finally the master offers him some tea. The professor thanks the teacher, who then sets out two cups and begins to pour tea into the first cup, and pours and pours. The tea flows out of the cup and covers the table. Most of the time when people hear this story they identify with the Zen master. We all know people like the professor, people who just don’t know when to shut up. But the truth is that we’re such people ourselves. That is you. That is me. It’s a human thing.